Archive | March, 2011

Mt. Lu

29 Mar

This past Sunday, I went with the Jin’an Senior High School faculty to climb Mt. Lu.

Mt. Lu (or Lushan) is a very famous mountain here in China (the locals cannot believe I had never heard of it in America, because it is so well-known here). People in Jiujinag are very proud that their city is strongly associated with Mt. Lu (being the nearest city to the base of the mountain), and I’ve heard a lot of rhetoric about it. My first week of teaching, I was asked in almost every class if I had been to Lushan, and I’ve been told many times how it’s one of China’s gems of the Earth, and it’s Jiangxi’s precious jewel, and so on.

I was excited to see the mountain, finally, after hearing so much about it’s beauty, but I have to admit that I was a bit apprehensive about climbing it. I am not, as they say here in China, “sportive”. And I’ve certainly never been someone who feels the need to scale large things just because they are there.

On the other hand, it seemed like a once in a lifetime experience, and a chance to climb one of China’s great natural treasures.

As it turned out, no one made much progress in terms of actually climbing the mountain. It’s very, very tall–it takes hours to climb–and the timing was such that climbing even halfway up the slope would have meant missing the school-sponsored lunch in the village below. So instead of climbing all morning, we meandered upwards for a while and then veered off to visit Tiefo Temple.

I had planned to spend the day with James and Julia (a fellow member of the English department at my school). I didn’t realize that Julia was bringing her daughter, Fairy, who is too young to attend my school, but whom I tutor every Monday evening. It worked out well–I think Julia was glad that Fairy got some extra English practice, and I was happy to have as many English-speaking companions as possible.

Before we began climbing, Fairy and I posed next to this monument.

Me and James.

My coworkers on the unimaginably long path going straight up the mountain.

Tiefo Temple, from a distance.

The temple gate.

Inside the gate.

Julia and Fairy.

Inside the temple compound the Magnolia trees were blooming, and it smelled wonderful.

These pink flowers were everywhere, as well. My companions and I weren’t able to work out a translation…I suspect the problem was my deficient botanical knowledge.

On the way back down the mountain, we passed these flowers in someone’s yard. They caused quite a stir–apparently, they’re considered very beautiful, but they’re rarely seen, and because they bloom early, they are linked to the Spring Festival. I was ordered to take a picture, because seeing these blossoms early in the lunar year should bring me luck for months and months.

All of this was before lunch. Honestly, half the fun of the day was bumming around the village at the foot of the mountain for 3 hours in the afternoon while we waited for the bus, but those stories will have to wait for another post.

It was a really great day, and I hope I get the chance to go back to Mt. Lu before I leave Jiujiang. We were only in one little village at the base of one little path leading up one peak. There are villages and temples scattered all over the mountain (which is 25km long and 10km wide, with more than 90 peaks). And you can, in fact, take a bus to the top…although I’m not sorry I got to see a piece of it on foot.


26 Mar

I didn’t mean to let a week pass between posts, but I’ve been sick and busy.

I was only recovered from the last cold for about 4 days before I caught another cold, which left me feeling pretty defeated this past week as I struggled through the coughing and the runny nose. I’m nearly totally recovered now, though.

I’ve also been under extra work pressure all week. This morning, we were supposed to have a group of students from a nearby rural school visiting, and I was asked to teach a demo class. The school even let me use the one multimedia room in the building, so I was able to create a powerpoint, which is a luxury.

I spent the week putting together a lecture on Easter along with the accompanying slideshow, and then having the slideshow revised multiple times by my colleagues, often in baffling ways. It was a very long process, and then, of course, it turned out that the rural students didn’t show up today, and I ended up teaching the class to a group of visiting teachers from the rural school and my own Senior 1 Class 1 students. It went well, but it was quite a bit of work.

Tomorrow, apparently I’m climbing a mountain. Jiujiang sits at the base of Mt. Lushan, which is very famous and beautiful, and a UNESCO world heritage site. I haven’t had the chance to see it yet, but tomorrow the school is taking all of the teachers for a climbing expedition. I’m excited about it, and hopefully I’ll have some photos to share soon!


18 Mar

I don’t have much to say this week. I’m reaching the point where I feel settled in to my apartment and my job, and so the days are starting to fly by–another Tuesday, another Friday, and I can’t believe it’s already the weekend again.

Now that I’m settled into my routine, I’m hoping to start branching out a bit. Next weekend, I might take the bullet train to Nanchang. But today I have nothing to report.

In lieu of written content, here are some pictures.

After getting a demonstration, this was my first attempt at cooking fried noodles. They were a bit too oily–my second attempt turned out much better, but I didn’t take a picture.

My office. My desk it the one with Pepsi on it.

And, finally, here’s a photo of one of my Senior 2 classes. These are my oldest kids, and this particular class is wonderful.


14 Mar

Since my last post, I haven’t done much besides work and sleep and cough and sniffle. I gave myself the weekend off—every moment of free time I have is spent feeling like I should be doing something exciting to take advantage of my time in China. This past weekend, I made a pact with myself that I would put that feeling aside and focus on recovering from the cold. It seems to have worked; I feel much better.

Teaching is either fabulous or tolerable, depending on when you ask me. I’ve never had a job that was so up and down before…walking out of a room after a good class is a great feeling. But when a class period is a struggle, I leave feeling defeated.

Take today, for example. I had high hopes for my first class, because I had so much fun with them last week and I thought I had finally figured out the recipe to get this particular group to participate. But today they were not interested in anything I had to say and the activity never really got off the ground. Then I walked into my next class and did the same activity with a group that has, in previous weeks, been too quiet, and they loved it. They told me it was “interesting and fun” (and I didn’t even solicit their opinions).

My last Monday class is my Junior 1 Class 1 kids…one of my largest and youngest classes. I have to admit that I have a soft spot for this group, even when they’re terrible—and last week they were terrible. The previous week (two weeks ago) I played eighty-eight (hangman) with these kids as a filler in the last 8 minutes of class, and they LOVED it. At the time, I thought this was a good thing, but last week all they wanted to do was play eighty-eight again. I told them no, that I had other activities planned, and that if they cooperated we would play eighty-eight sometime soon. They were having none of it. They took rowdy and uncooperative to new heights…it was the worst single class period I’ve had so far this semester.

I told them last week that if they can’t behave, they can’t play games, so this week I braced myself for more chaos and I went into my third class today with a lecture on St. Patrick’s Day. It was about 25 minutes of me talking, and then they did a pretty quiet partner activity and shared results with the class. I expected them to hate it–they don’t cooperate with fun games, why would they cooperate with a boring lecture?

It went great. They were by far the quietest they’ve ever been for me, they understood and completed the partner activity, and most of them successfully reported their results to the class. I was thrilled.

So today I started out the day feeling really frustrated and resigned, and by the time I left I felt like a good teacher.

That fluctuation has been pretty representative of all of my workdays here in China so far. One minute I’m on top of the world, the next minute I remember why I ultimately want a job doing research (and teaching college kids, but I don’t think they’ll kick me in the shins as much).


10 Mar

Today I arrived at my first class, slightly feverish and hopped up on cold medication, to find that I was being observed by an envoy of teachers from a middle school in a small city 4 hours away. Of course, I didn’t know that’s who they were. They just stood in the back of my class in suits and ties, 6 of them looming, while I talked about career-related vocabulary with my 12 year olds. We weren’t introduced until afterwards.

It was a bit nerve-wracking.

Then, the entire English department from my school and the visiting teachers were treated to a banquet lunch at a nearby restaurant. Again, I had no advanced notice of this, and although it was a pleasant surprise I had been hoping to get some work done during my 2 hour lunch break.

The banquet was lovely, although I couldn’t understand the conversations around me. Mostly, it was enjoyable because I’ve been told again and again about the ritual baijiu drinking that happens at these events, but I had not witnessed it before today.

Baijiu is the only hard liquor you can easily find around these parts. It’s strong (usually in the 90 to 100 proof range) and it’s really aggressively tangy with a distinctive flavor. I have no idea how to describe the taste, except that it reminds me of ammonia and candy canes, but it’s not minty. It’s got a really astringent sweetness.

I do not care for it. Not at all.

Of course, I’ve never tried the really expensive brands of baijiu. In fact, I suspect I haven’t tried the mediocre brands–the only baijiu I’ve purchased myself cost what I later calculated to be the equivalent of 75 cents. For a (smallish) bottle. So you may want to take my dislike of the stuff with a grain of salt. Still, I’m deeply averse to it…just the smell makes me shudder in horror.

It’s what people drink here, though, especially if you’re going to be toasting.

We were all treated to a nice banquet lunch, which in China means that we were seated at a very large, circular table with a lazy susan in the center. The school principal was there, and he’s an intimidating guy–there’s a lot of cultural stuff here in China about workplace hierarchy, and I don’t fully understand most of it, but every time he enters or leaves the room, we all have to stand up. Also, he only speaks a few words of English. He actually seems pretty pleasant, but he’s become an almost mythic figure in my head. We’ve barely interacted, I rarely see him around the school, and when I do, he’s in his fancy suit and everyone else is leaping out of his way.

So everyone was drinking shots of baijiu, and the principal started the toasting. I don’t know how to explain the toasting, but it was incredibly elaborate. I couldn’t understand what was being said, but random people would just pop up out of their chairs and toast other random people, sometimes speaking at great length. Sometimes a toast required everyone to stand, and sometimes it only required the toaster to stand. Sometimes the toast called for downing your entire shot and other times it was okay to sip. I couldn’t see rhyme or reason in it, but I suspect there were patterns that would have been obvious if I understood the language.

In the first 30 minutes of the meal, there must have been 20 toasts. The people around me went through 2 glasses of baijiu and they were debating a 3rd before anyone noticed that I was toasting with Sprite.

Under other circumstances (like at a dinner), I’m sure I would have had some baijiu, despite not caring for the taste. But. It was 1:20 in the afternoon and I had 3 back-to-back classes to teach starting at 2:10. And, more importantly, I was doped to the eyeballs with cold medicine. I am not so foolish as to do shots while on cold medicine with a group of esteemed visitors and my boss at 1pm on a Thursday. I have enough trouble eating with chopsticks in civilized society when I’m stone cold sober, and more importantly, I don’t want to get kicked out of the country after causing an incident while in an antihistamine and rice-liquor induced haze.

I thought the cold gave me the perfect excuse to pass on drinking. Everyone at work knows I’ve been sick for a few days and several of the teachers present were part of my scavenger hunt to find appropriate medicine. And the directions for the antiviral that the local pharmacist gave me clearly state in several languages that it is forbidden to drink alcohol while taking this drug.

It wasn’t that easy, of course…even the principal tried to talk me into a shot. I stuck to my guns, though, although I did clumsily join in on the toasting. I’m not sure who I toasted or why, but it got a big laugh. I don’t mind looking slightly foolish if it conveys my enthusiasm about being here, and despite the lack of advance warning, the visiting teachers were very friendly. I was repeatedly invited to visit their school, should I ever find myself out that way.

It was an interesting day, mostly because it was an example of how a normal morning can veer off into something unexpected. I was told over and over again that I should prepare to be flexible here, and that cultural differences in attitudes about scheduling and time and advanced notice are often frustrating for Americans in China. I guess today was a good example, and I wouldn’t say I’m frustrated–at least, not yet. I just hope I can continue to roll with these kinds of surprises.


8 Mar

I have the best mom in the world! Today at lunchtime the guards at the school gate chased me down to tell me that I received a package in the mail. It’s full of food and Easter stuff and American magazines to use with my students. But the best part? Mr. Clean Erasers. Wow, was I excited to see them!

The care package couldn’t have come at a more welcome time, since I am currently coming down with a cold and a little taste of home was heaven. It isn’t surprising that I’m getting sick, since I catch ALL the colds. If someone has a sore throat within a 3 block radius, I will catch it. I expected to get sick in China at some point–after all, I’m bound to be exposed to different cold strains here than I would be exposed to back home. I’m almost impressed that I made it a whole month illness-free.

Still, it’s no fun…and I’m anticipating that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Somehow, I didn’t actually pack any cold medicine. I don’t know what I was thinking–I caught a cold first thing in Mexico last summer, and trying to get my hands on the medicine I wanted felt like a production (not because it wasn’t available, of course, but because I wasn’t familiar with where I needed to go and what I needed to ask for). You’d think I would have learned my lesson and brought some damn pseudoephedrine to China. But no.

Today, I went to the Chinese pharmacy and after a round of fake sneezing, fake coughing, and rubbing at my throat while making a pained face, they gave me an anti-viral and some antihistamine. Better than nothing!

So far, this week’s been going pretty well at work. I’m starting to suspect that I was given two relatively calm weeks to settle in and adjust to my new schedule, and now that two weeks have passed the extra requests are coming out of the woodwork. I’ve been busy. I tutored on Sunday morning, as I mentioned in my last post, and yesterday evening I met with another small group of elementary students.

After class today I worked with an older student, Cybil, who is about to have an English interview at Hong Kong University. She invited me to eat dinner with her family while she practiced her English, which was very nice. Her father cooked, and the food was delicious. We ate some sort of sausage, steamed eggs, some green vegetable that I eat all the time here but can’t identify, and duck wings. Also, her family’s apartment is on the 7th floor (no elevators!) of a building in the same living district as mine, and even though it was hazy today, from that height I could finally see the vague outline of Mt. Lushan!

I’m not sure that this is coherent–my head is a little bit spinny. I think I’m going to eat some more jelly beans and head to bed.

lazy sunday

6 Mar

This morning, I held my first group tutoring session. I’ve been asked to work with students from the elementary school, where they learn English from Chinese teachers. The kids I met with today have had 3 years of English, but almost no opportunity to interact with native speakers, which is why their parents are willing to pay me to tutor them once a week.

Today, I taught four 10 year olds in my apartment and it was so much fun. I was told beforehand that I didn’t need to worry about a formal lesson–I just needed to prepare a few games and maybe some songs, very low pressure. And, of course, there are many things you can do with four students that you can’t do with forty, so these lessons will give me a chance to play hot potato, and simon says, and all the games I keep reading about on TESL resource websites that sound really fun but impractical for a large class.

Here’s a picture of my Sunday students.

From left to right, they are Qing Ying, Yu Tong, and Frank. The fourth student, Qing Yu, is hidden by Frank’s hamming it up for the camera.

As a bonus, today’s lesson provided me with some artwork to liven up my depressing white walls!

Tomorrow evening, I’ll be working with a different group of elementary students. It should be a nice change of pace, on top of providing extra pocket money.